Look at their eyes, not their bodies, even though their bodies cry out for your attention, crammed, jammed and slammed into the minuscule space in front of the stage, arms flailing, torsos sinuating with the irresistible vibes of the music. But their eyes betray the secret, tell you which ones will go over the top. Faces aflame with ecstasy, like Saint Teresa contemplating God, they zero in on Daryl Hall or John Oates. It is always the girls—ears pierced, hair frosted, lips purpled, gum stowed respectfully away for the big moment—who do it. They wait till the security men are looking the other way, their friends give them a boost, their arms take on a strength beyond human power and suddenly they are rising. They push themselves across the apron of the stage, stand up there next to their idols and for an instant they think they know true happiness.
They don’t, of course. “The moment they jump onstage and realize they’ve done it, they get scared,” says Oates. “Suddenly they’re standing so close they can touch me, and they’re like baby deer caught in a trap.”
The girls who actually clamber onto the stage—14, 15, sometimes even 17 or 18 years old—and the thousands more like them who mob the lobby of the Huntsville Hilton, clog 33rd Street outside Madison Square Garden, throng the backstage entrance of the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis are the proof of a music phenomenon aborning. This year Hall and Oates have peppered the pop charts with more bullets than Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid. With a string of hit videos and singles—Out of Touch, Method of Modern Love, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid—they have started to move, after years of performing, from mere stardom to the realm of the superstars. And this spring, with their Big Bam Boom tour (named for their current hit album), they are taking their success on the road.
Wheeling and sliding through the Natchez Trace in an ice storm that came out of nowhere, the luxury bus—an oxymoron if ever there was one—is groping its way along the interminable road from Huntsville to Memphis. Today, the price of fame is being paid. This was to have been a day of discovering America—a route personally plotted by Oates, through back roads along the spine of the Smokies to Davy Crockett’s birthplace, past congeries of log cabins and rib joints, even to the shrine of Jack Daniels in Lynchburg. But the weather turned traitor, and the heating system on the bus decided to operate at only two settings—Arctic and Sahara. Stretched full length on a couch at the front of the bus, his chest covered by his leather car coat, his legs buried under a security guard’s down jacket, lies the man a reverential music press calls the Avatar of Blue-Eyed Soul, the Incarnation of White-Boy Rhythm. Sniffling and feeling wretched from a cold he cannot shake, Daryl Hall talks about life as a sexual idol of teenage America.
“It’s not one of the things I consider to be a motivating factor in my work,” he says, with a perhaps sardonic, certainly cryptic smile on his lips. “It’s weird to be that kind of focus; sometimes you could cut the energy in a room with a knife—all those teenage girls there sort of vibrating, mmmmmmm…There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t follow up on it. It would be interesting if I could.”
Oates has perched himself next to the driver of the bus, staring out into the gloom. If he were given to black moods, he would be in one now as the bus slows to a crawl on the icy road. But there are times when Hall and Oates seem determined to conform to the image that the media have created for them over the years: Daryl abstract and dreamy, John levelheaded and of perpetual good cheer. This is one of those times. John takes his mind off the road and puts it on his fans. “They don’t want my body,” says Oates. “They want what they think is my body. It’s fun for them to fantasize, but not many teenage girls want to deal with grown men—and hardly any are capable of it.”
A grumble rises from the recumbent figure on the couch: “We are not cute. The ones who always say, ‘Oooooooh, they’re sooooo cuuute,’ wouldn’t like us if they knew us.”
Hall is 35 now, Oates 36, and they want the world to know that they are as serious about their business as any pin-striped investment banker. “This is not Spinal Tap,” Hall says. When the groupies come to party the night away in the hotels on the road, it is the road crew that entertains them. “The art of the pop song is a lot more difficult than most people realize,” Oates argues. “We relied on emotion 15 years ago because we didn’t have any of the other tools. Now we have the tools and the craftsmanship and the technical proficiency. We haven’t lost the heart.”
Their search for musical authenticity is a cautionary tale for aspiring musicians. Throughout the early ’70s, a series of producers and arrangers manipulated them, attempted to define for them what the Hall and Oates sound would be. Subsequently their music was often a pleasing though un-challenging product that fans loved but critics dismissed as disco, not serious rock. With their 1974 LP War Babies, they tried to smash their way out of the mellow music mold that had been cast for them, using punk-inspired dissonance and heavy-rock riffs. The results were disastrous. “We played a few gigs where people actually threw things at us,” Hall remembers.
The following year they stepped closer to the middle of the road musically with the Silver Album, which yielded the hit Sara Smile as well as some unexpected fallout from the LP’s cover photo depicting them in makeup. Although both have long-standing relationships with women, the rumors have persisted to this day that they are gay. Worse, three albums in the late ’70s failed to produce a single hit, and their careers began to go into eclipse. Now, they say they are glad that happened. “When you’re successful, it’s much more difficult to experiment and take chances,” says Oates. “If your records aren’t selling, and you can’t communicate with anyone, why not try something different?” They recruited the band they now work with, began producing their own albums and, for the first time, developed a unique sound. A string of No. 1 hits followed.
Big Bam Boom is their final exam in that rebuilding course, a collection of tough, driving songs of love and alienation with an R&B base. To the unrelenting music, they have added lyrics that are spare and unflorid. They were never ballad singers; they always attempted to evoke emotions with verses as fragmentary as the lyrics of Sappho. But they may have set a new record on this album, which opens with a song just four words long.
The anger has been rising in them for weeks over an article that appeared in Rolling Stone. It called them “not-so-equal partners,” and intimated that they may now not even be friends. In all fairness, the nature of their relationship is amorphous, intriguing, not easy to define. Most of their history is well known. They met in 1967 while students at Temple University in Philadelphia, where each had his own band. They roomed together in New York, driving to gigs in John’s battered Pontiac GTO until songs like She’s Gone and Rich Girl made them famous in 1976.
They are not equal, not one-absolute-hundred percent. Daryl sings most of the leads, gets more of the shrieks from the audience, has done the solo album. And when the critics call their music Blue-Eyed Soul, remember: John’s eyes are brown. “Luckily for John and me, we don’t have any problems with that,” Hall explains. “No relationship is 50-50. I do more than John does—that’s the way it is. That’s the way God planned it [for the record, he is joking when he says this]. It’s not my fault, it’s not John’s fault. But, within that, John is extremely important. It is Hall and Oates. John wrote the chorus to Out of Touch; he co-writes all the songs with me.”
“We’re more like brothers than friends,” Oates says. “Brothers don’t walk around arm in arm all the time. There’s always a little tension that keeps things alive. Besides, we never set out to be the Everly Brothers or some two-headed musical monster.”
They take pains to point out that no outsider can ever comprehend the dynamics of any relationship between two people. But this is the appearance they present: friends, yes. They have apartments near each other in Manhattan, homes in the Connecticut exurbs. But there is Hall: 6’3″, tight-wound, almost feline in his attitude, deliberately keeping himself always on edge, exuding energy and demanding attention. Then there is Oates: 5’4″, almost canine in his cheerfulness, calm and stability. He’s flamboyant only onstage, content in private to let all eyes be turned to Daryl. “It is not a dominant/submissive thing,” Hall says of their relationship. But it is clearly made easier by John’s willingness to give Daryl the limelight.
They keep their family lives private. John is married to a successful Ford model, Nancy Hunter. “My personal life is hotels, touring and then being home,” he says. “My wife understands it. She’s been around it for six years, and she knows she didn’t marry a bookkeeper. She has a life of her own; you have to.” Daryl lives with Sara Allen, 32, their frequent co-lyricist. (The song Sara Smile was written about her; She’s Gone, another big early hit, was written about Daryl’s ex-wife, Bryna Lublin.) “I’ve had one woman in my life for years and years,” he says. “But I’m not afraid to admit that we’re ultimately alone, even though we’re together. As Jimi Hendrix says, ‘I’m the one’s gotta die when I gotta die.’ ”
Throughout a week on tour, John Oates wears an identity pass, as if he might embarrass any feebleminded security guard who tried to stop the star of the show as he made his way through the hall. He “pleases” and “thank yous” everyone in sight, and when he hears that there might have been a misunderstanding between Daryl and the tour journalists, it is John who knocks on the hotel room door after midnight to make sure there are no hurt feelings.
Later, after a concert, Oates seeks out a reporter. “Please,” he says, “make sure you write about the band. It’s what really makes our sound. These are some of the finest musicians in the business.” (Lead guitarist G.E. Smith, saxophonist Charlie DeChant, bassist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and drummer Mickey Curry are also an integral part of the Hall and Oates sound, both as instrumentalists and backup singers.)
Hall and Oates are holed up in another unpromising dressing room, in Huntsville, getting up for the show. At first they perform, a cappella, the old song Every Time You Go Away. They erupt into riffs and falsettos and improvisations that make the cinder block resound. Their eyes close, their voices swell and the music fills them. You can almost see Daryl’s mind leaving the room, entering the arena before he does. His eyelids and his facial muscles are scrunched down and all his energy concentrated into his mouth. It is the beatific look of a man finding something in his soul that he can draw out to amaze the world.
John Oates is singing along, adding harmony, goofing around, grinning broadly. If there are demons in his soul (and he insists that there are a few), he exorcises them through the songs he writes—not when he performs. Even as he makes music, he absorbs it, and he seems to vibrate with the same pleasure that the music gives his audience.
Daryl sips lightly on Moët & Chan-don White Star, John on dark rum. The energy is in them; they look, feel, act ready. “When I’m out there, I feel like I’m about seven feet tall,” John confides before the concert.
“When I’m up there shamaning out and everybody is reacting, sometimes I forget where I am and do things I didn’t even know I was going to do,” says Daryl. “That keeps me going.”
The security men come with flashlights to lead them down the dark, curving corridors, along the ramps and up the steps to where their audience stands screaming in anticipation. They will not be disappointed.